When the Babe was a postseason failure

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As the Yankees opened up their new stadium in 1923, all eyes were on the Babe.

For Babe Ruth, 1922 was decidedly not a banner year. Despite hitting .315 with a .434 on-base percentage and an AL-leading .672 slugging, the Babe had a down year. With an OPS+ of 182, it was, in fact, the only year between 1919 and 1924 that Ruth’s mark dipped below 219. To make matters worse, Ruth matched that down year with an injury-plagued season and a suspension from Commissioner Kennsaw Mountain Landis due to an off-season barnstorming trip that wasn’t approved by Major League Baseball. Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.

For his Yankees, 1922 was supposed to be a year of redemption. After losing to the Giants in the 1921 World Series, the 1922 Yanks went 94-60 as they beat out the St. Louis Browns to reach the World Series. For Ruth, the Fall Classic was a disaster. The Giants swept the Yankees, and the high-paid Ruth was the goat. He went just 2 for 17 with one extra-base hit and one run batted in. The press coverage after the world’s series, as it was then called, was brutal.

On October 10, 1922, two days after the end of the Series, The Times eviscerated Ruth:

Opinion was almost unanimous that Ruth has reached the lowest ebb of his career. His failing box office value makes the fat three-year contract which the Yanks gave him last Spring look like a dubious bit of business. The Babe’s failure in the world’s series, it was predicated, will work heavily against him next year.

As Associated Press report that appeared throughout the country predicted Ruth’s departure from the Bronx via a trade. “He was almost a total failure in the world’s series,” the nation learned.

Other sources, as Robert Weintraub notes in his recent book The House That Ruth Built, were equally as brutal. One writer from Baseball Magazine claimed that it was “almost certain Ruth can never be restored to anything like the position he held in the minds of the fans.” Ruth was well on his way toward becoming “a liability to the NY club instead of its best asset.” Tough words for a tough time.

I recently read Weintraub’s book. It’s on the season that followed Babe’s failures as the Yankees opened an expansive and expensive new ballpark in the Bronx and Ruth tried to redeem himself in the eyes of the fans. (Spoiler Alert: He does, and the Yanks win the 1923 World Series.) For me, though, the book was more of an eye-opener about popular attitudes toward Ruth than it was on the history of Yankee Stadium. Like many fans of the Bombers, I know about the battles between the Giants and Yankees over the Polo Grounds and the history behind the now-demolished old stadium.

Ruth, though, remains today even a mystery. With popular biographies and Hollywood movies, his shadow stretches over the game, and his accomplishments are tremendous. At a time when few players hit home runs, he launched 714 of them. With both his pitching arm and prodigious power, he captured seven World Series rings and reached the Fall Classic 10 times. He forever revolutionized the game.

Yet, the Babe was a controversial figure. He was a philanderer in an age when the press was far more forgiving; he drank a lot; he ate a lot. But to many traditionalists, Ruth was ruining the game. With Ruth’s home runs, the game became a brutalist display of power. Forget the finesse of a slap hitter, the speedy guy who could bunt for a base hit and create a run or the strategies behind scratching across just enough to subdue your opponent. In 1914, when Ruth made his debut, no team in the AL had more than 29 home runs. In 1920, he hit 54 by himself. It’s hard to comprehend just great change.

While reading Weintraub’s book this fall a few weeks after the Yanks’ season ended unceremoniously by the upstart Detroit Tigers, I couldn’t help but think of Alex Rodriguez. The Yanks’ superstar, aging and perhaps faded, was pilloried by the press for striking out in two key situations in Game 5 of the ALDS, and although many Yanks failed to hit during the series, A-Rod drew the brunt of the criticism. He who makes the make money, stands the tallest, is the biggest star attracts the harshest critics.

After the ALDS, the 2011 equivalent of the 1922 baseball press called A-Rod a liability to the Yanks. Has he reached the lowest ebb of his career? Will his failures work against him in the 2012 season? Babe had another 517 home runs left in him, but he was also, in 1922, eight years younger than A-Rod was in 2011.

The baseball press and the game’s fans have always been fickle. What have you done for me lately is our motto, and nothing about it is a new phenomenon. From the Babe to A-Rod with countless others in between, the failures we remember are always only the most recent ones until that big moment — for the Babe, it was his 1923 campaign with an MVP and a ring — makes us forget. And that’s the rebirth of baseball for you. Ain’t it grand?

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  • Soriano Is A Liar

    TRADE RUTH FOR PITCHING, SIGN CESPEDES

  • http://www.youcantpredictbaseball.com bexarama

    Despite hitting .315 with a .434 on-base percentage and an AL-leading .672 slugging, the Babe had a down year.

    That’s just insanity. Babe Ruth was pretty okay.

    • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

      Ha! Exactly what I thought when I saw that.

    • FIPster Doofus

      Decline his option and sign Cody Ross. He hits in the playoffs.

    • Brian in NH

      when i first read Baseball Between the Numbers, it was the first time i saw any sort of analytic way to compare players across different eras of the game. It really just blew my mind how at his prime, Ruth was just so far and away ahead of everyone.

  • Brian S.

    A-Rod had a higher WPA than Swisher, Jeter, Martin, and Teixeira in the 2011 ALDS. And yet he, Teix, and Swish are the only ones taking heat. Why does the Captain get a free pass? Jeter and his contract+performance hurt the Yankees more than A-Rod and his contract+performance do, at least for the next two years.

    • Avi

      If Arod made the error that Jeter did in game two people would be calling for his head. That jeter error KILLED us.

      • Brian S.

        Don’t forget the 0-5 Jeter did in game 2. Jeter’s game 2 was the worst any Yankee had all series.

        • It’sATarp

          And his inability to drive runners in high leverage/key moments really hurt.

    • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

      Cuz teh Captain haz 5 ringzzzz!!!!11!!1

    • David, Jr.

      This. +++++

      Jeter’s jock is a popular place to live.

  • Avi

    What a great article, a joy to read. I do think that Arod presses in the postseason though and has a difficult time calming down and relaxing.

    • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

      But that can’t be shown on a stat sheet, so that can’t possibly be an excuse!

      • Brian S.

        It’s true he was nervous. I diagnosed him myself though my television. His hurt thumb had nothing to do with his struggles at all.

        • Freddy Garcia’s 86 mph Heat

          Can’t tell if serious…

          • http://www.youcantpredictbaseball.com bexarama

            I doubt it.

            To be fair, I can believe that maybe A-Rod has an issue relaxing or whatever. Fine. But what made him relax in 2009? Why was he relaxed with the Mariners, and in the first eight games of the 2004 postseason or whatever?

            And, I dunno. As far as I remember, it’s not like he swung at crappy pitches IMO, at least not this year. I didn’t think he was pressing. $0.02.

      • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

        This is just the worst kind of comment.

        • I am not the droids you’re looking for…

          Why? It may be glib, but it’s a valid pov IMO. Advanced statistics are extremely valuable, but they are not, however, sufficient to judge all things in all situations. The way non-quantifiable issues are summarily tossed aside by saber fans is, I believe, ridiculous.

          • the Other Steve S.

            +1

          • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

            The way that some people lump “saber fans” into one group is equally ridiculous.

            Of course stats aren’t adequate for all situations. But in non-quantifiable situations it seems that people would rather jump to conclusions — A-Rod gets nervous — than to acknowledge that unless we’re in his head we just don’t know. This isn’t everyone, of course, and Avi at least labeled his point about A-Rod as opinion. Jesse then jumped in with unnecessary snark.

            • BigDavey88

              Jesse is also like 14 or something like that. It can be an awkward stage.

            • Spreadsheet Sam

              Well, your site, so your rules. But personally, I find that rapid responses are a hallmark of lively conversation. I don’t think there is anything wrong with a touch of sarcasm, even when it touches one of MY personal hot buttons.

          • UncleArgyle

            Thank you. It seems that it has become the “intelligent” point of view that baseball players are Robots who will always perform to the back of their baseball cards because that’s the way they are programmed. Nick Swisher didn’t have a bad post season because he was missing curveballs by 3 feet, he simply was a victim of a small sample size. Or the argument that saying a player looked nervous is somehow a crazy statement, because that’s not something an observer can tell. Bullshit. Its called Non-Verbal Communication, aka body language. A legitimate course of study that’s taught in every major College and University. Now is everyone qualified to correctly diagnose body language? No, of course not. But dismissing the idea that a player can “press” in incredibly high stress situations because Bill James hasn’t come up with an equation to state it in numbers is ass backwards, close minded thinking.

            • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

              Find me people who think that players don’t press.

              The Swisher argument is also a red herring. Small sample size and missing curveballs by three feet are not in opposition of one another. Yes, missing pitches is why he failed in this instance. But by saying small sample size, we’re saying that past results do not guarantee future returns. Just because he missed those curveballs this year does not mean he will next. I always point to Tino Martinez, who was terrible in his first 150 playoff PA and then was excellent from the 1998 ALCS through the end of his first Yankees tenure in 2001.

              • UncleArgyle

                Tino Martinez certainly is a good counter point. However, I have a problem with the thinking “don’t worry about Swishers or Texeria’s or whoever’s 2011 post season, because they could have a really good post season in 2015″ As a fan, I wanted a championship THIS year. Also, why are we so convinced that a player will play better at 33 than at 27? Doesn’t this run counter to the idea that players decline and skills erode? Furthermore, the post season is different animal in many respects. You won’t see the Orioles or Royals pitching staffs in the post season, so saying someone should perform to their regular season numbers is a flawed argument because the level of competition is in the playoffs is higher, therefore it should be EXPECTED that most players will underperform from their regular season numbers. Now regarding the idea of pressing, lets be honest, the human element is LARGELY marginalized by SABRmetrics, in fact that’s largely the point of the science. Now I embrace statistics, I’ve been reading Bill James for longer than I care to admit, and the SABR revolution has yielded amazing things. But I’m not willing to totally dismiss the idea that the human element comes into play and can bring uncertainty and randomness to the results, regardless of sample size. It should be obvious that the reason AROD, one of the 5 best players ever, had such a bad post season run from mid 04 through 07 was because his head wasn’t on right, just like it should be clear that he was much more relaxed in 2009, ergo, a monster post season run. Now Statistics can’t explain that, but it certainly happened. At least in my opinion. OK, end rant, my fingers are tired.

        • http://bleedingyankeeblue.com Jesse

          My God dude, learn to take a fucking joke.

  • mac1

    In fairness, Ruth in the 1921 WS had an OPS of over .900. In his previous 2 WS appearances as a pitcher he was 3-0 in 31 IP with a ERA and WHIP of under 1.

    There is a lot of comps between guys who failed early in their careers to the current Yank triumverate of A- Rod, Swish and Tex – I just don’t think it makes for a compelling arguement.

    A-Rod was banged up and he’s older, the other two guys have seen their obp and ba drop – its a concern. I think they also were hurt a bit by better pitching being able to work the corners and get the calls, hence all the K’s and the lack luster performance.

    • mac1

      correction — Should read Swish’s ba and SLG declined

  • tbord

    I read somewhere that Ruth upon entering a party is quoted as saying: “All dames who ain’t gonna f$%#@, LEAVE. Only wish that Arod had those kind of balls, maybe then, he’d have a few more postseason wins.

  • MannyGeee

    You couldn’t possibly be comparing Alex Rodriguez to Babe Ruth….

    They do completely different things with this hot dogs…..

    /Gay-Rod’d

    • MannyGeee

      Sorry, couldnt resist… But in all seriousness that is a GREAT parallel…

    • Johnny O

      very poor attempt at humor

      • MannyGeee

        I’m paid to be handsome, not humorous.

  • Jose M. Vazquez..

    I see that the NY press has always been harsh on it’s players and it has never changed. If you fail in NY they want your head ASAP. As far as the Yankees are concerned not one but many heads would need to be chopped off for the failures in the postseason. Even the Babe must have felt the pressure after banging out 54HR and then failing inthe WS.

  • I am not the droids you’re looking for…

    Bust!

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Clay_Bellinger Clay Bellinger

    Interesting article. Def a good read.

  • http://yankeedinosaur.mlblogs.com BurrowDweller73

    By my count, the Babe only won 4 World Series rings: ’23, ’27, ’28 and ’32… He played on the losing side in 3 others (’21, ’22 & ’26) – is that how you get to 7? I thought only the players on the winning team got a ring, though.

    • Mike

      Arod > Ruth ..

    • BigDavey88

      Babe Ruth also played for the Red Sox.

    • http://riveraveblues.com Benjamin Kabak

      The Red Sox won in 1915, 1916 and 1918 when the Babe was on the team. He pitched in two of those and had an AB in 1915 Fall Classic.

      • MannyGeee

        Ruth = Grit

  • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher

    Take plaque off of Monument Park. Trade plaque, David Phelps, and Austin Romine for Jon Danks.

  • Rainbow connection

    What the fuck is a barnstorming trip?

  • Rainbow connection

    What the fack is a barnstorming trip?

    • Jose M. Vazquez..

      I believe it started in Ruth’s time where he would gather a team of players and go to diverse cities to play the locals or another companion team. I suppose but ai am not sure if the barnstorm comes because they may have dressed or played near barns cannot say for sure. Ruth even did barnstorming in Japan.

  • Jose M. Vazquez..

    Ruth vindicated himself in 1923 hitting .368 with one homer. I have begun reading ” the Complete NY Yankees” by Derek Gentile. It is interesting to note that at the very beginning we were owned by a noted NY gambler (Frank Farrell and the ex police chief William Devery). What contrasting figures.